Occupy Wall Street Brings Class Consciousness to America
Americans are taught not to think about class. Embedded in our cultural identity is the myth that no matter the station into which one was born, any person can rise to the greatest levels of success. Now, as Occupy Wall Street enters its fourth week, all that may be changing.
The growing momentum of Occupy Wall Street in lower Manhattan, and the hundreds of sympathy demonstrations that have sprung up throughout the country, show that a substantial number of people are ready to identify as the 99 percent of Americans who have been left behind. Beginning with the Wisconsin union protests and continuing through Occupy Wall Street, increasing numbers of Americans are becoming comfortable with pointing out what has long been obvious – there is an entrenched political and financial class that has centralized wealth and power in the hands of the very few. The very language of Occupy Wall Street – identifying as one massive group, the 99 percent – recognizes and highlights the central class disparity that so often goes ignored in our society.
Earlier this year, Joseph Stiglitz wrote a widely read piece for Vanity Fair called, “Of the 1%, By the 1%, For the 1%.” In it, he citied numbers that felt, like the latest ranch-based gaffe from Rick Perry, shocking, yet expected. The top 1 percent control 40 percent of the wealth in America, an increase from 33 percent 25 years ago. In the piece, he warned that the kind of unrest seen recently in the Middle East will eventually spread to a society as stratified as ours. Though Zuccotti Park is different from Tahrir Square in many significant ways, Occupy Wall Street offers an outlet for anger at the richest 1 percent that we haven’t seen in America in recent memory.
Why haven’t Americans been more vocal in their condemnation of the massive upward redistribution of wealth over the past 30 years? One probable, sad answer is that a lot of people didn’t know about it. One survey shows that though the nation’s richest 20 percent of people account for 85 percent of the nation’s net worth, respondents predicted that they only accounted for 59 percent. And before we heap undue blame on these people, let’s remember how frequently USA Today runs a headline telling their readers just how much they’re getting screwed every day by the Masters of the Universe.
Another possible answer is that, as Howard Zinn says, “we’re taught to believe there’s only one class.” The phrase “American Dream” was coined in 1931 by the writer and historian JT Adams and has since had a fairly elastic definition, though it’s still generally understood as Adams described it:
“[A] dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable … regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
Cliched though it may be, this idea courses through the veins of American culture, and though it has never been a particularly precise rendering of the American experience, it nevertheless informs our national self-conception. As a result, the 99 percent of Americans who haven’t shared in the economic prosperity of the past 30 years often identify with the interests of their bosses instead of their peers. This manifests itself in all sorts of ways, from an ever-increasing distrust of unions to our perverse obsession with watching Donald Trump fire people on his comedy business program.
The myth of the American Dream is only sustainable, however, if America delivers the goods. Whether we’re talking about the shared prosperity of The Great Convergence in the post-war period, or the massive private debt that households took on between the early 1980s and 2007 – more on that in a minute – many people in America felt like things were good, and getting better. Once the bubble burst and the jig was up, a lot of those household balance sheets looked a lot worse.
Now, in the midst of what is horrifyingly called a “jobless recovery” – or worse, an “unrecovery” – there’s no engine for optimism in America. Nor should there be. The average annual income in 1988 was virtually the same as it was in 2008 – $33,400 to $33,000, respectively. Why did households feel like their wealth was increasing while their wages stagnated? Because their wealth was increasing, due primarily to rising real estate prices. And before you say, They should have known better, remember that the prevailing economic paradigm was housing prices would continue to rise indefinitely. So family’s assets – which, for the non-rich, basically means their houses – grew faster than their debts accumulated. Beginning in 1980, the increase in household debt was due primarily to deregulation (via Krugman), but don’t tell that to policy makers. Better instead to blame it on workers who haven’t seen a raise in 30 years.
All this adds up to one central question: Are Americans ready to start talking about class? Well, the 15,000 union members, students, workers, and work-seekers who marched from Foley Square to Zuccotti Park on Wednesday certainly are – and they’re betting that are a lot more people are coming.
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